[This post first appeared on BillMoyers.com on Oct. 23, 2017]
On Oct. 4, 2017, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) said that all issues relating to the investigation into Russian interference with the election remain open. But with respect to the firing of FBI Director James Comey, the committee had gone as far as it could and was passing the baton: “Future questions surrounding Comey’s firing are better answered by the [special] counsel or by the Justice Department,” Burr said.
Special counsel Robert Mueller is reportedly investigating whether Trump’s interactions with Comey amount to obstruction of justice. The charge can be leveled at anyone, including the president, who attempts to influence, obstruct or impede a federal investigation or a judicial process.
Most people assume that Comey’s firing is the linchpin of any obstruction of justice case against Donald Trump. And while it’s certainly important, it’s just one brick in a longer road. The BillMoyers.com Trump-Russia Timeline reveals that Trump’s Comey predicament is far worse than wherever the act of firing him takes Mueller. Long before he dismissed the FBI director — and for months thereafter — Trump took numerous actions that could now support an obstruction of justice charge. Consider:
- On Jan. 27, 2017 — a week after the inauguration — acting Attorney General Sally Yates spoke with White House counsel Don McGahn about national security adviser Michael Flynn. In December, Flynn had been in contact repeatedly with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. In public statements, Vice President Mike Pence and press secretary Sean Spicer had said that Flynn engaged in no discussions about Russian sanctions with Kislyak. But, Yates informed McGahn, that was not consistent with what US intelligence agencies knew to be true. Someone, presumably Flynn, was lying, and that made him potentially susceptible to blackmail by the Russians, who knew the truth about those conversations. On the same day that Yates spoke to McGahn, Trump invited FBI Director Comey to a private dinner at the White House. “I need loyalty,” Trump told him.
- Two weeks later, as advisers were leaving an Oval Office meeting, Trump asked Comey to remain. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump told him on Feb. 14.
- During testimony before Congress on March 20, Comey acknowledged that the FBI was investigating Trump’s campaign connections to Russia. Afterward, Trump reportedly asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Director of National Security Mike Rogers to deny publicly “the existence of any evidence of coordination between his campaign and the Russian government.” Senior White House officials also reportedly “sounded out top intelligence officials about the possibility of intervening directly with Comey to encourage the FBI to drop its probe of Michael Flynn.”
- On March 30 and again on April 11, Trump asked Comey to “lift the cloud” of the Russia investigation.
- On April 25, Flynn reportedly received a message from Trump to “stay strong.”
- On May 2—the eve of FBI Director James Comey’s scheduled testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee—Trump supplemented his ongoing “Russia hoax” tweets with a more subtle form of obstruction—witness intimidation:
- After Comey’s Senate appearance, Trump fumed about his testimony. Over the weekend of May 6-7 at his Bedminster Golf Club, he and aide Stephen Miller drafted a four-page letter directed to Comey, outlining Trump’s reasons for firing him.
- On Monday, May 8, Sally Yates was preparing to testify about her January conversations with Don McGahn concerning Mike Flynn, and Trump unleashed another tweet smacking of witness intimidation:
- Later that morning, Trump read his draft Comey termination letter aloud to several advisers, including White House counsel Don McGahn and Vice President Mike Pence. Together with Kushner and then-chief of staff Reince Priebus, McGahn and Pence drafted talking points about Comey’s planned firing. Meanwhile, Trump asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for a memo outlining their problems with Comey. They complied, and Trump cited their recommendations as his reason for firing the FBI director. On May 9, Trump fired Comey.
- Trump’s subordinates — including Pence, who went to Capitol Hill — then took to the airwaves and peddled the lie that Rosenstein had been the impetus for Comey’s termination.
- All of that went for naught on May 10, when Trump confessed, first on May 10 to Russians in the Oval Office and then, on May 11, to the world on NBC, that he made the decision to fire Comey because of “Russia.”
- The next day—as The New York Times reported on Trump’s Jan. 27 “loyalty dinner” with Comey—Trump again used Twitter to intimidate a key witness:
- Asked at a May 18 news conference whether he had ever asked Comey to close or back down on the investigation into Mike Flynn, Trump answered, “No. No. Next question.”
- On June 8, Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Trump had asked him about Russia repeatedly and that he perceived Trump’s expressed “hope” about “letting Flynn go” as an order. The next day, Trump called Comey a liar and accused him of leaking classified information.
- After the May 17 appointment of a special counsel to investigate Trump-Russia connections, Trump’s attacks on Robert Mueller were relentless, along with reports that Trump was considering firing him. In a July 19 interview with The New York Times, Trump referred to what he viewed as the appropriate limits to Mueller’s investigation. A week later, The Wall Street Journal asked him if Mueller’s job is safe. “No, we’re going to see,” Trump said.
- Meanwhile, on July 8, 2017, Trump was helping his son draft a misleading statement about a June 9, 2016 campaign meeting at Trump Tower between his top advisers and three Russians who had promised to bring “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. The cover-up of that cover-up—that is, obfuscating the extent of Trump’s role in drafting his son’s original statement—lasted less than a month.
Why has Trump tried to shut down the Russia investigation, lied about Comey’s firing, persisted in efforts to intimidate key witnesses, inserted himself into misleading statements about his campaign advisers’ meetings with Russians offering to help him win the election, and held the sword of Damocles over the special counsel investigating him? Behind any effort to obstruct justice is a fear of the truth.
In a thorough 108-page factual and legal analysis for the Brookings Institution, Barry H. Berke, Noah Bookbinder, and Norman Eisen outline in great detail the case against Trump. People lie for a reason, and Trump is no exception. What he feared—and apparently still fears—continues to seep out.
Trump’s erratic behavior has many questioning his mental fitness to remain in office. But throughout his life, Trump’s actions have always been rational in a key respect: Trump does what is best for Trump. If that means obstructing justice, so be it.